Marcus Rashford sat out England’s first training session in Russia due to a knee complaint as Gareth Southgate faced the first notable injury doubt of the World Cup build-up.
Preparations to next Monday’s Group G opener against Tunisia could scarcely have gone any better up until now, with the initial 23-man selection remaining intact after beating Nigeria and Costa Rica.
Rashford shone in the latter friendly and scored a superb opener during a man-of-the-match display in last week’s Elland Road send-off, underlining his claims for a starting berth when the finals get under way.
But the 20-year-old’s hopes received a setback after missing England’s first training session in Russia with a slight knee injury.
The Football Association indicated Rashford’s absence was only a precautionary measure, but the forward was conspicuous by his absence in the first session at Spartak Zelenogorsk’s stadium.
England’s medical staff are treating a knee issue that Southgate called a “slight knock” upon touching down in Russia on Tuesday, with midfielder Jordan Henderson using a similarly relaxed tone the following day.
“He’s not too bad, I don’t think,” the Liverpool captain said. “It’s a knock in training.
“I think we’ve still got five days before the first game so it’s just a little bit of a precaution for him to make sure he is OK.”
After training with the remaining 21 members of the squad on Wednesday, Henderson said he did not know how Rashford sustained the issue.
Eric Dier – facing a fight with Henderson to start against Tunisia – was among those involved in Zelenogorsk, but eyebrows were raised by the heavy strapping on his left thigh.
“I am fine, thank you,” the Tottenham defensive midfielder said. “It is just a superstition more than anything now.
“It’s just because I’ve had a problem with my leg and it’s cleared up now.
“But I was wearing the strapping before and I just haven’t stopped wearing it yet. I will eventually!”
Around 400 locals watched England’s first training session, with children given Three Lions goodie bags at the start of a session that ended with the players signing autographs.
England’s training ground is a 10-minute drive from their hotel in the resort of Repino, which is 29 miles north-west of St Petersburg.
The team checked-in at the forRestMix Club on Tuesday evening, meaning players have yet to do anything other than rest and train.
“We just got there last night,” Dier said. “We were in the hotel and training this morning.
“I know over the next few days we can if we want to, so I am sure myself and others will get out and about.”
And Dier is looking forward to heading into St Petersburg over the coming weeks to explore a place he has heard so much about.
“I’d like to go and see St Petersburg,” the 24-year-old added. “Apparently, it is a beautiful city.
“I think it’s one of the most European cities in Russia, so I am looking forward to seeing the city.
“My friend’s brother used to play here at St Petersburg and he said the city was very beautiful, so it will be nice to go and see it.”
On a lighter note, Henderson is ready to fight Dier for a World Cup starting spot – and will be hoping that duel goes the same way as their table tennis matches.
As Southgate prepares for Monday’s Group G opener, the choice of who will act as the Three Lions’ midfield ‘pivot’ is among his toughest decisions.
Henderson and Dier both played key roles in England’s qualification for the World Cup, but one of them looks set to miss out next week as the manager only has space for one holding midfielder.
“We’ve been kicking each other in training! Nah, I’m joking,” Henderson said. “We get on well. I get on well with Eric. He’s a great lad, he’s a fantastic player.
“It’s not just me and him fighting for places, it’s the whole team.
“There’s some fantastic players within the squad and everybody wants to play, of course.
“But it is about the 23 at the end of the day and if you’re going to progress through the tournament you need everyone,” he added.
Henderson has not spoken to Dier about Southgate’s comments regarding the defensive midfield role, but they are spending time together away from the field.
The pair are among those enjoying table tennis in their downtime, with Trent Alexander-Arnold’s social media post of his smiling Liverpool team-mate under the comment ‘who’s table tennis champ’ suggesting there is a standout player.
When the title of table tennis champion was put to the midfielder after training, Henderson said with a laugh: “Yeah, that sounds good!
“Me and Trent had a few games.
“Raheem (Sterling) likes it, Eric likes it as well, so there’s a few of us that (enjoy) big competition in there.”